Synchronicity: Engaged Communities

Not much is new: networks have been around a long time. For decades, technology has been easing communication, making it ever simpler for individuals to connect around shared ideas, problems and intent. What’s different now is the ownership and speed: the fact that the infrastructure has become democratised and widespread and the pace of conversation is almost immediate.


As organisations no longer own the networks, as our conversations can fluidly move between formal, social, virtual and physical spaces, all without interruption to the narrative, the networks have become both more dynamic and more immediately purposeful.

We can connect in person, then, whilst we are talking i can email links to articles or send photos. We can continue the conversation by email whilst connecting on LinkedIn and Google+, where we can extend invitations into different communities or groups. We can use instant messaging through SMS, Hangouts, Skype, Yammer or a dozen other platforms, many of which can suddenly up the bandwidth to full video, and many of which are beyond the reach and ownership of the organisation.

Even within organisations that attempt to own the spaces, we typically see individuals subverting the hierarchy by connecting anyway, through their personal phones into anonymised spaces. The desire to connect and to do so in ways that are free from influence and oversight is strong.

If the proliferation of communicative and socially collaborative technologies has changed the ways we connect, it’s the speed of communication, the synchronous nature of these communities, that has made us more effective.

Once communities are formed and are cohesive, we can utilise them for ‘sense making‘ activities, for problem solving and strategic support (as well as for social reinforcement and validation). What matters is our ability to share, freely and synchronously, into the population (or a subset of the population) and interact in almost real time.

Communities that lack this rapidity of interaction are the ones at risk of stagnation: they are less purposeful, less effective.

The picture is complex: organisations know that they want to leverage the value of communities, but they often start by looking at infrastructure, whilst what they really need to do is understand conversations. What problems are the community wrestling with and which communities or spaces can help them solve it? Those communities may neither be formal, nor internal, but they will almost certainly be both fluid and synchronous.

The mindset needs to be less about control, more about facilitation.

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Carpe Diem: the Elusive Nature of Time

It’s stolen, wasted, invested or gifted, but, one way or another, it keeps ticking by. People often ask me where i find the time to write: it’s simple, i find it by not spending it elsewhere. And i try to spend it on writing before i do anything else (unsuccessfully today as i’m writing at the end of a busy day, a day where i’ve let time be stolen).


We shouldn’t just think of time as stolen or wasted: we can gift time: to others, supporting, nurturing and helping, or to ourselves, allowing ourselves time to read, to relax, to sleep or to learn. And we can gift it to society by volunteering. Similarly, we invest it in living: celebrating and entertaining, but also in the health of our communities as well as in learning.

Our time is stolen by processes, systems, technologies and people: inefficiency in design is a desperate drain on our time. Things that take five times longer to do than necessary. These fragments of time add up to a huge waste.

Why am i so interested in time? Because we are all busy: our ability to apportion it, save it, allocate it and invest it are central to our ability to engage, to be effective.

People see social approaches as a waste of time sometimes: but they are missing the point. It’s only through engagement that we can truly be agile, and without agility, we have nothing.

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Eclectic Reflections: Culture, Agility, Technology, Authority and Equality

Today, some eclectic reflections on the realities of the Social Age

Eclectic Reflections

CULTURE: Culture is co-created through actions of individuals in the moment: it’s not aspirational or deterministic. It’s not something written on the wall in the lift. To engage in change therefore, inherently, is about engagement and co-creation of a new state: it’s about finding who is invested in the status quo and painting a picture of how they build meaning in the evolved reality. It’s about creating communities of change so that the decision becomes ‘am I in or out‘, not, ‘can i ignore or hide‘?

EQUALITY: my thinking continues to evolve. Less about abhorrent behaviours, more about infrastructural bias. What if the thing we are striving for is inherently shaped by cultural notions that are based in gender or racial bias? Whichever way you look at it, ‘empathy‘ is seen as feminine: we are a long way from removing the gender associations of behavioural traits. We worry about the number of women in technology, but what if technology is inherently biased in function and form factor? Or maybe i just think about it too much. I am clear though: equality is the fight of our time.

AUTHORITY: can no longer be assumed. Hierarchy and position will not insulate you or the organisation from the question ‘why?‘. As our relationship with organisations evolves, away from ‘career‘ towards ‘contract‘, our dedication or engagement can no longer so easily be bought, at least not without balance somewhere down the line. Contracts need to be fair: an employment contract and a social contract. Organisations need to do what’s right, recognising the needs of individuals in a turbulent space.

AGILITY: is what will keep us alive and let us thrive. For organisations, the ability to create both spaces and permission to innovate, explore, rehearse and engage. Connection in a meaningful way with internal staff and external partners: collaboration and competition often closely aligned. Unconstrained curiosity: the ability to question everything, to connect widely, to access information and technology in ways that are meaningful to the community. The ability to challenge process and systems that are simply mechanisms of control, instead of tools to let us be effective.

TECHNOLOGY: away from dinosaur systems, towards interoperability, seamless integration with our ways of working, not having to adapt to their ways of functioning. Technology facilitates communities to do the things communities want to do: but don’t underestimate the mobility of communities to move if we try to own the technology or control the conversation. The future: wearable technology, the quantified self, will change every aspect of our lives. Sooner than you think.

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The Context of Stuff

TreasureThe biggest different between how things were then and how they are now? Maybe it’s the contextual nature of information, the interpretation of knowledge. What we need, when we need it: pushed to us, provided to us on demand, made sense of by communities, peer reviewed, contextualised by community, delivered to our pockets. Or glasses.

The overall shift is away from holding information like treasure, hidden in a chest and locked away, towards a time when information surround us, suffusing the atmosphere like WiFi. When information becomes free, when our communities, facilitated by collaborative technology, give us both access and interpretation to make it meaningful to us, that’s the Social Age.

It impacts everything: the ways we learn, the ways we share, curate, perform and collaborate. We need to adapt our learning methodology, approach to leadership, use of technology and mindset of control. That’s the Social Age. And it’s here, now. The only outstanding question is: are you ready?

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Tradition and Change

We talk of tradition with reverence: it’s age conveys status and permanence. Hallowed and respected, mythic and old. To talk of change is heresy: change is modern, change is clean, change is unfettered by the shackles of history. Tradition is wood panelled, soot stained and aged for eighteen years with a peaty taste. Change is oily and metallic, plastic and glass.

Tradition and Change

We hold onto tradition and fear change.

And yet nothing is forever.

A Christmas card arrived from the Netherlands this week, on it, Zwarte Pete, a traditional character who acts as Santa’s helper. But only in the Netherlands. Because anywhere else, it would be unheard of to have a character called ‘Black Pete‘, who is played by a young man wearing black makeup. It would be offensive. When i grew up, there was a range of marmalade whose logo was a similar character, finally outlawed in 2001. Their position became untenable: a hundred years of history was no defence for modern sensibilities. When i grew up, it was common to see that character as a cuddly toy, loved by children. Today, i won’t even type the name, because it’s racist.

Things change.

The Dutch are having the marmalade debate: on the one hand, to them, the character is part of folklore. A traditional image on a million Christmas cards and celebrated with love and joy in songs and plays. To others, it’s a symbol of repression, racism, colonial legacy and is just plain offensive.

So it has to change: the genie is out of the bottle and won’t go back. But change takes time: it takes the normalisation of the new ideas. It takes some flailing about to find a new normality.

This year, Zwarte Pete in his black makeup was joined by ‘Cheese Pete‘, in yellow makeup: an attempt (although not a very successful one) to adapt, to morph the legacy, the tradition, into something new.

This is how change occurs: by degree or by rift. Currently, there is a debate. A space has been opened up for conversation. Is it change by degree or change by fracture? Will Cheese Pete be one step on the journey, or will a legislative intervention cause a fracture. Will Pete be outlawed, gone the way of the marmalade? Or will he morph into Rainbow Pete. Or maybe Petra.

Things change.

When i work in one of the eighty countries where homosexuality is still illegal, i have to remind myself that that was the case in my own country until a few short years before i was born. Indeed, in the year i was born the Canadians were still prototyping a farcical machine that could ‘tell‘ if a new recruit in the army was homosexual. Can you imagine that today?

Things change.

But we have to understand how: when we implement organisational culture change programmes, do we understand how change occurs? Do we understand the difference between increment and fracture? Do we create the spaces for the conversation to occur, or do we impose legislative change? And which approach do we think is most effective?

Sometimes things have to change, but it’s our approach that defines the success. Creating the spaces for the conversation and then listening to what is said. A co-created model. Surely that’s the way.

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To Thrive in Chaos and Ambiguity

Uncertainty: a shifting landscape of expectations and alliances, technologies and goals. Ambiguity: what does winning mean anymore and will we ever stop striving? Ambiguity: that thing that used to work is less effective these days, the path is less clear. Striving: constant learning, adaptation and rapidity of response. The need for community.

To thrive in chaos and ambiguity

The Social Age is a time of constant change: an evolved landscape of work and play. The nature of work itself has changed and, alongside it, the social contract between organisation and individual. Our relationship with knowledge has evolved too: away from knowing stuff to creating meaning. The ability to find meaning in the moment and to do it again, tomorrow, differently. Which is what we call agility and uninhibited curiosity. The desire and freedom to question everything.

Agility is not a foregone conclusion: most organisations are infrastructurally lethargic, unable to adapt, innovate, create or respond at speed. Why? Because process and mechanisms of control are used to codify behaviour into narrowly constrained and inflexible pathways that are the enemy of agility. We create organisations that are unable to bend, unable to think freely, lacking both permission and space to do so.

To thrive? We need our communities: sense making entities that power agility in the Social Age.

We need socially collaborative technology, to house and facilitate our conversations and activities.

We need the humility to lead by doing, through sharing and storytelling, by ensuring equality and freedom for everyone. We set aside our mantle of formal authority in favour of social leadership.

We become agile: constantly learning, adapting, sharing and growing. We thrive by being given or taking the permission to change. Only organisations that understand this, that welcome it, that adapt to it, will be here ten years from now.

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 New YorkMy last day in New York: grey skies, rain, the Christmas lights throwing out a corona in the haze. I sit in a cafe, warming up: it’s cold here, the coldest part of my trip, and i’m ill prepared. Two jumpers, a thin coat and i’ve been shivering as i march along. Lessons learnt.

Tomorrow, i go home.

Home: both a place and a notion, an idea. Back to my community, my space, my friends and family, although, in the Social Age, i’m never far from any of them. Indeed, today i’ve had lunch with John on Wall Street: whilst we’ve never met in person before, it’s like meeting a friend. We’ve been connected in communities and spaces, #WorkingOutLoud for several years. Such is the nature of the Social Age, blurring boundaries, creating new spaces, shared spaces, which often have only a tentative root in the physical spaces we walk through in the rain.

Our shared spaces online are collaborative: often informal, often transient between different infrastructure technologies, but coherent in the thread of conversation. Shared values: shared purpose. Often a shared curiosity uniting us, bringing us together.

Home: a notion of navigation, of journeying coming to an end, an idea of endings, of circularity, of change, because the ‘me’ who comes home is never the ‘me’ who left. Travel changes us. Why? Because we learn, and to learn is to change.

 New YorkThe Faces in the cafe: all away from home, all co-located in this transient space. The girl with blonde hair and green wellington boots, hunched over a notebook (and actual paper notebook!), writing in furious bursts, part hidden behind her red coffee cup. College work? A poem? No, too furious for that. Maybe an assignment. Or love letter? Who writes love letters anymore? Love WhatsApp maybe, but letters? Letters from afar? Letters with mysterious stamps and postmarks, letters that arrive carrying tidings of foreign lands and distant travel?

The guys to my right, relaxed in armchairs, both gesturing widely in their woollen turtleneck and blue jeans: young, lattes and MacBooks, of course. It’s virtually the uniform. Maybe not that young after all: maybe here to escape the reality of life, mortgage and children whilst they share stories of past glories and shared adventures. Or maybe just moaning about work. Away from home, any story is a good story.

The girl behind, i think she’s Korean. I assume a language student, because her textbooks are foreign, but then remember this city of all cities is global. As likely she’s from the Bronx and studying for exams.

And me: writing, writing for my community, to capture my ideas, to reflect before homecoming.

ThailandSingapore seems a long time ago and, from here, a very long way. Probably twenty eight hours to fly. A different space, a different time. From Singapore to Thailand, my first time there: different in so many ways with it’s Asian bustle and smells, almost overwhelming. I always feel disjointed when i’m in Asia, for a few days, until i retune. I have to relax my ideas of home, adapt, find a new balance. Those busy cities are not my home, not my natural space. I feel like the stranger: walking compulsively as i try to build my mental map, as i try to attune to the new spaces and sensations.

Onwards: as the weeks unfurled like a sail, carrying me to Dubai: western, yet arabic. Capitalist, Islamic, rich, disjointed. Another period of adaptation: i started to get that sense of permanent transience you find when you lurch from one space to the next. A self fulfilling feeling of dislocation and orientation as you pass from hotel room to hotel room. The only familiarity my pack and the communities i carry with me.

Being thrown into Florida was relocation into a more familiar space: the States is always welcoming for me, easy to navigate. Not home, but familiar (although these days the brands on the high street carry familiarity to even the most far flung places). Five days in one space was longer than i normally endure: i am restless as best, impatient and uncomfortable when constrained at worst. But time enough to form a new community, make new friends, connect with old ones. Time for learning and reflection before my final few days in New York.

An old friend: when i was here last, i wrote the book about ‘Communities, Spaces and Performance’ and, in the process, fell fully in love with it. So a homecoming of sorts, but not my home. Sure, i wandered around 79th street until i found the cafe i loved, a familiar space to revisit. Indeed, this trip has been all about revisiting: at the end of five weeks on the road, i’m not about exploring today, but rather about trying to revisit roots, to anchor myself in one space and time. I’m jumping between familiar spaces, maybe trying to feel like i’m at home.

The Highline, one of my favourite urban spaces anywhere in the world, but this time, in the biting cold, something to be endured and conquered, not savoured and loitered over as when i was here before.

Maybe tonight a game at Madison Square Garden, or maybe i’ll let my feet carry me, through Times Square, over to Bryant Park, perhaps to the Rockefeller to see the ice rink, before a weary stomp up the west side of Central Park and back to the bar at my hotel.

Tomorrow, home.

Home to my own space: the point at which you walk in the door and the journey becomes the memory. No longer real but rather part of our journey. Something that we experienced, that changed us, but that lives in memory, not sound, sight and smell. Recollections: fragments, memories.

The journey is about discovery: the community is about sense making, the homecoming is about change. About what we bring back and what we leave behind.

The girl with blonde hair has finished, sat back now in her chair, reading. Relaxed after the intensity of writing. Maybe reflecting, maybe done. Maybe she’s told her story. Maybe a story that needed to be told.

Tomorrow: home. Tonight, a final chance to explore, to reach out, to get lost, to find new spaces, to delight in the sense of dislocation that comes from letting your feet take you ever further, take the wrong turns, get lost and, finally, welcome the embrace of going home.

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